Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never made it to the podium on Sept. 9 due to security concerns as a massive protest raged outside Hall Building.
When Concordia Rector Frederick Lowy announced the lecture would be cancelled at 12:55 p.m., the crowd in H-110 shouted “You let them win!” and “This is democracy!?” Because the RCMP, Montreal police, and Netanyahu’s security did not feel he could enter the building safely, the only choice was to cancel.
“It’s deeply disturbing,” said Noah Sarna, co-president of Hillel Concordia. “People should have the right to speak their minds in an open, pluralistic form. This is disgusting. This University is for everyone. I don’t necessarily agree with [Netanyahu] or would vote for him, but I believe that he [had] the right to speak. This is a sad day for Concordia.”
Starting early Monday morning, hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters mobbed de Maisonneuve Blvd. in front of the building and sealed off its entrances while shouting slogans, singing songs and waving Palestinian flags.
Inside, dozens more occupied the Mezzanine and gathered on the ground floor escalator, chanting “Netanyahu, criminel!”, “Free, free Palestine!” and heckled those who had passed through security and were on their way to the lecture.
Garbage and empty water bottles were periodically thrown at police, stacks of pamphlets lifted out of the news stands fluttered to the ground, and the elevator shaft on the Mezzanine barricaded. But when some protesters picked up chairs to throw, they were verbally rebuked by others.
“This war criminal, this murderer, this man who was responsible for the misery of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians, will be less than 100 yards from us. What excuse do we have for letting him into our school?” said Palestinian student Samer Elatrash. “None!” the crowd roared.
Security was tight, with metal detectors set up at the Bishop St. entrance that had to be passed though before people could proceed to room H-110, where the lecture would have been held. Police and RCMP kept a close watch in the room as an anxious crowd anticipated Netanyahu’s arrival and asked them repeatedly to remain seated so more ticket holders could be let in to the room.
When asked about the heavy security around the Hall Building before the lecture was to start, Rector Lowy was solemn: “It is a hassle. It is a distraction for us, and I regret it has to happen, but it is a safety precaution for our students.”
The protest began to get chaotic around 11:40 a.m. when masked protesters broke through barricades surrounding the Mezzanine and swarmed down the escalator before being stopped by riot police.
When Thomas Hecht, the outgoing chairman of the Canada Israel Committee, Quebec Region, tried to enter the Hall Building, he was jostled, kicked in the groin and spat on by a group of protesters. “It was a terrible thing for a Holocaust survivor to go through,” he said. “Since I was going in, it was obvious I was going to hear Netanyahu, [which] was my right as a human. This is fascism, 1939.”
At about the same time, the situation became more heated when there was a clash between protesters inside the Hall Building and riot police. Surrounded by a phalanx of at least twelve police at all times, protesters at the bottom of the escalator were beaten with clubs and shields.
CSU VP Campaigns Aaron MatE was forcibly pulled from the group, thrown on the ground and disappeared beneath a swarm of riot police. He was dragged out of the building and arrested.
Pepper spray was deployed outside after protesters subsequently smashed a front window of the Hall Building, and those inside were tear gassed after they publicly voiced intentions to storm past police and seat themselves in the lobby. Those inside room H-110 were not allowed to leave until the gas had cleared.
Two more windows were broken near the MacKay St. entrance after protesters picked up a metal police barricade and launched it into the security office.
When asked what had happened to the “peaceful” protest promised by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), President Basel Al-Ken – visibly shaking after having being tear gassed – said: “We just wanted to go in the lobby and sit there. That’s it; that was our plan. We never planned for any of this [violence] to happen. But it’s people’s natural reaction when they are attacked by the police.”
The President of Montreal Hillel, Yoni Petel, was just one of many who addressed the frustrated crowd and asked them to remain calm. “This victory wasn’t for those who are interested in hatred and racism. The victory isn’t theirs. The victory is ours. We will not give up on this university because this is our school. This is not Gaza, this is Montreal.”
Dr. Steve Scheinberg, a history professor at Concordia and national chairman of the B’nai Brith League for Human rights, a Jewish advocacy group, also spoke after the crowd finished singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
He said pro-Palestinian protesters had taken things too far: “They went beyond… and broke the boundaries and stopped freedom of speech. This discredits their cause. There hasn’t been one attempt to stop any Palestinian speaker here in the past two years and that shows a different perspective, and students who believe in free speech. A university is for the exchange of ideas.”
When asked how he felt, Gabriel, a 23-year-old management student who didn’t want his last name published , said: “Frustrated and confused. I feel that our community has lost a battle against anti-democracy. We just wanted a peaceful conference. Oh my God, I can’t believe this.”
19-year-old psychology student and CSU councilor Naomi Sarna was also appalled. “I know several people who were abused: physically or verbally. People don’t deserve to be treated like this. The hate doesn’t stop today. It keeps going and going.”
Despite the fact that Netanyahu did not have the opportunity to give his lecture, Sarna remained optimistic: “I am tremendously proud of the students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who came out for the lecture and who kept their cool.”
This is not the first time a speech by Netanyahu has been cancelled. Protesters at the University of California at Berkeley forced him to abandon a lecture there in 2000.